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September 24, 2013 / schulerbooks

Cinnamon and Gunpowder, by Eli Brown

9780374123666

It should go without saying that being captured by pirates is never an easy thing. The company is questionable, the conditions are terrible, and you never know when they’ll tire of having you around and toss you over the side, or worse.

So when Owen Wedgewood — chef to the late Lord Ramsey — is bundled up with the rest of the loot when Mad Hannah Mabbot comes to call, he can only expect the worst. However, it just so happens that this pirate queen has a taste for the finer things in life, and she negotiates a deal at swordpoint: every Sunday, Owen shall cook for her a fine meal, worthy of his late employer’s table. Should he succeed, he wins another week of life.

Should he fail… well, there’s always “theater paint.”

Unfortunately for Owen, the food to be found on board the Flying Rose is as questionable as his shipmates, the galley is a joke, and the cook should be arrested for crimes against cuisine. However, this chef isn’t about to just lay down and join his long-dead wife, and soon finds ways to procure, wheedle, and outright steal what he needs to keep himself alive — and possibly even escape.

As time goes on, Owen discovers there’s more to this fire-haired pirate captain than the sharp edge of her blade — and tongue — would reveal. There are indeed reasons for her renegade ways, and while he can’t agree with what Mabbot does, over time he can’t help but wonder if his previous understandings of “right and proper” are worth anything on the ocean. Especially when he learns what his late employer’s company does to make money in Asia.

Such realizations can only come in short pauses, though. Hunted by the agents of a powerful British company while hunting a cunning quarry of their own — and dealing with a sneaky saboteur — the threat of being shot out of the ocean by a well-aimed cannonball is everpresent. Can Owen get away from the Flying Rose? Does he really want to? Should he root out the ship’s hidden saboteur, or help him?

And can anything prepare him for the surprising changes he undergoes in his new life as a pirate chef?

A blend of high-seas pirate adventure and culinary grace under pressure, Cinnamon and Gunpowder succeeds in large part by the strength of its conceit. Like a master of nouvelle cuisine, Brown takes two things that don’t sound like they’d work well in tandem, and manages to make them such a luscious pairing that it’s hard to imagine not eating them together. To that we largely credit the delightful voice of Owen, who narrates his nautical misadventures for posterity, and lends the narrative the charm that a staid, third-person voice might not have brought to the table.  The comparison to a gender-switched Scheherazade has been made, and it seems a valid one.

In short, this book is simply delightful. The pace is brisk, the characters eccentric but somehow believable, and the cunning delights that Owen manages to coax out of his meager surroundings are nothing short of amazing.  Anyone who likes their food fine, their adventures nautical, and romances unlikely should tuck in their napkins — and secure their seats — for this feast.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is out now, and available at all Schuler Books and Music locations.

– Jim Tremlett, Eastwood

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